Aanjalie Roane is the director of communications at Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières in Canada.
If you were to understand the current crisis in Sudan by Canadian and international media coverage alone, you would think it was characterized by one defining issue: the evacuation of foreign nationals.
In the first days following the outbreak of intense fighting between the Sudanese military and the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group, headlines across multiple mainstream outlets highlighted the difficult efforts to evacuate foreign passport holders from the country. Images of frantic evacuation airlifts, packed rescue vessels and shuttered embassies dominated news wires. Dire evacuee stories pushed the Sudan crisis to the forefront of global attention – and then, unbelievably, public awareness stopped there.
Make no mistake: efforts to evacuate foreign nationals from any emergency certainly require urgent concern and action. Yet in a context where people at the centre of this crisis have been pushed to a catastrophic level of humanitarian and medical needs, a narrow focus on foreign evacuations will only ever be one side of the story. Beyond the headlines, people living in Khartoum and other areas remain trapped by fighting, although a weeklong ceasefire was set to begin on Monday, while thousands more have fled for safety to other parts of the country or across borders. Violence – including gunfire, shelling and air strikes – has made it too risky to travel to the few health facilities that are still open. With many more hospitals closed or facing a critical shortage of supplies, basic access to health care has been cut off.
For example, Sudanese teams at Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) who remained in Khartoum have continued to work throughout the conflict, donating medical supplies to hospitals and clinics in the capital despite the dangerous conditions under which they now live. In El Fasher, North Darfur, our teams working to treat people injured in the violence have described an incredibly difficult situation. In a recent video testimony, MSF’s project co-ordinator in El Fasher, Mohamed Gibreel Adam, told us there was “no water, no electricity, lack of fuel … people being admitted on the floor … and in the corridor because of [lack] of space.”
As news commentators debate which foreign passports were de-prioritized in the evacuation queues, let us not forget who else is left behind: people who do not hold passports at all, as well as Sudanese people who do not have the option to leave. Sudan also hosts more than one million refugees from neighbouring countries like South Sudan and Ethiopia, who now find themselves yet again trapped in another wave of conflict.
At Um Rakuba and Tinedba camps in Al-Gederaf state, refugees describe shortages in medication and food amid rising prices and skyrocketing inflation. When Western media narratives hyperfocus on a single foreign evacuation story, they not only neglect these painful realities, they also paint a picture of a short-lived crisis that begins and ends when foreigners depart. In Sudan, the situation is anything but a frozen moment in time: instead, the health system was already on the verge of collapse before the escalation of violence in April. Now, because of the conflict, the UN reports that 50,000 acutely malnourished children have had their treatment disrupted, and 219,000 pregnant women are trapped in Khartoum without reliable care.
As humanitarians, we are used to responding to crises that are out of the spotlight – in Sudan, but also the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and beyond – but know that a narrow and short-lived media gaze will always make emergency responses more difficult. Without public attention, resources and funding are a far cry from what is needed. Limited awareness also permits the blatant disregard of humanitarian spaces, like the attacks against hospitals in Sudan that have had disastrous consequences on access to health.
As Canadians, our outrage and empathy during a humanitarian crisis must not end when people who share our citizenship return home. If we do, we risk reinforcing the idea that our shared values of humanity and solidarity ought to be determined by the unpredictable whims of Western news cycles. The people in Sudan deserve better than to be a below-the-fold headline or media afterthought. This is more than just their story to tell: it is their lives and the safety of their children that hang in the balance.